Saturday, 21 August 2010

Proms Summer Matinee 3: I Fagiolini/Britten Sinfonia/Wigglesworth - Dowland, Britten, Gesualdo, Dean, Monteverdi, and Olivero, 21 August 2010

Cadogan Hall

Dowland – Flow, my tears
Britten – Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland, for viola and orchestra
Gesualdo – Responsories of the Office of Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday – II: ‘Tristis est animas mea’
Gesualdo – Sixth Book of Madrigals: ‘Moro, lasso, al mio duolo’
Brett Dean – Carlo
Monteverdi – Madrigali guerreri et amorosi: ‘Lamento della ninfa’
Monteverdi – L’Orfeo – Act II, Messenger Scene
Betty Olivero – Neharot, Neharot (United Kingdom premiere)

Lawrence Power (viola)
Ian Watson (accordion)
I Fagiolini
Robert Hollingworth (director)
Britten Sinfonia
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)


Preliminaries out of the way as quickly as possible: first, the innovation of Proms Saturday Matinees at the Cadogan Hall is welcome, and programming appears to have been liberated by the smaller space; second, programme booklets could do with greater attention. Though free of charge, a welcome change from the excessive prices charged at the Royal Albert Hall for what is often little more than a collection of advertisements, that ‘little more’ at the main venue at least includes a modicum of information concerning works and composers. Texts and translations are provided, as are biographical notes on the performers, but it is a controversial hierarchy that considers them more important than works. There is, admittedly, a degree of spoken introduction, but I heard a few members of the audience comment that they would have liked to know who Brett Dean was. It is, moreover, not mere pedantry to wish that Monteverdi’s ‘Lamento della ninfa’ had been ascribed to his eighth book of madrigals, Gesualdo’s madrigal to his sixth book, and so forth.

As I said, the matinee programmes seem more intelligently constructed than some of their ‘big brothers’ in Kensington Gore. This concert examined three twentieth- and twenty-first century responses to ‘early’ or ‘Renaissance’ music: both descriptions beg more questions than they answer, but the same could be said of any categorisation. Dowland’s Flow, my tears thus preceded Britten’s Lachrymae. Clare Wilkinson sang, to Eligio Quinteiro’s sensitive, musicianly accompaniment on theorbo. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that Quinteiro impressed more consistently than his ‘soloist’. Wilkinson adopted a very ‘Early Music’ style of voice: strictly no vibrato, but little modulation in any respect. More worryingly, there were a couple of occasions on which her breath ran out before her words, leading to faltering at the ends of lines. Diction, however, was impeccable, and by the end of the song, we had become attuned to Dowland’s characteristic melancholy.

His tears flowed into Britten’s Lachrymae, which I had heard the Britten Sinfonia perform in Cambridge in 2008. The orchestra has been extremely fortunate in its viola soloists: first Maxim Rysanov, now Lawrence Power. Once again, I was struck by the way in which Britten’s music finds its voice, emerging out of something between nothingness and Dowland’s music. Melancholy has not only transposed but transmuted. I was also again reminded of Britten’s kinship with Berg: not just the Violin Concerto, whose Bach chorale foreshadows the full statement of Dowland at the end of Britten’s work, but also the febrile writing for string orchestra, suggestive of the Lyric Suite, blossoming under the firm yet generous hand of Ryan Wigglesworth. Moments of ecstasy raised the temperature in a gripping, arguably more dramatic account than that I had heard in Cambridge: both were fine performances, with similar and different virtues. There was not a hint of the intonational difficulties that can sometimes plague performances of works such as this. If only all ‘Early Music’ were performed with the passionate commitment devoted to the Britten…

The next pairing was Gesualdo and Dean. Gesualdo was presented in sacred and profane modes: the ‘Tristis est anima mea’ from his Tenebrae Responses, followed by the madrigal, probably to his own vers, ‘Moro, lasso, al mio duolo’. Christ’s words from Gethsemane, heard as the lights go out on Maundy Thursday, were given a very English reading by I Fagiolini. Hints of something more Italianate upon the word ‘fugam’, referring to the disciples’ flight, were more than balanced by a restraint that had more in common with Choral Evensong than Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Many works can take different performing ‘voices’, and I think Gesualdo’s can, but it was perhaps a pity not to hear something more full-blooded. The madrigal was less restrained, though a degree of vibrato would have imparted some sense of the sensuality the performance lacked. Dissonances and weird melodic twists nevertheless made their mark. However, Robert Hollingworth, the group’s director, is not, on the basis of this performance, possessed of the most ingratiating countertenor voice.

Brett Dean’s Carlo (1997, not that one would know from the booklet) followed, its title implying a response to the man and his scandal – at least to modern audiences – as well as to his music. Nevertheless, the work opens and closes straightforwardly with Gesualdo the composer on tape: the madrigal we had just heard. The downward chromaticism of the madrigal’s opening forms a thread through much of the composition, not least at the end of a glorious orchestral blaze, which put me in mind of a dubiously glorious auto da fé. Falling intervals, hand in hand with a beautifully judged diminuendo, prepared the way ultimately for the final statement of Gesualdo himself. But much had gone on between, all superbly realised by the Britten Sinfonia’s strings under Wigglesworth. Here one heard an ensemble of string soloists, not dissimilar to Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra, for whom the work was written. The fractures of sampled sound provoked disapproval in a woman sitting in front of me, who turned to all and sundry, hoping, it seemed, to elicit a similar response. Fracture led, however, more often to mediated unity than to further fracture, though the breathy sounds heard later on belied the polite Englishness of the earlier performance. I was a little surprised by the reaction of the American woman seated next to me, who had more than once been politely requested to desist from her distracting fanning during the performance. At one point, she exclaimed, ‘total crap!’ It was still more surprising, then, to see her applaud vigorously at the end of the performance: perhaps she changed her mind; perhaps she was as sane as she was considerate. At any rate, this intriguing piece, which I should be keen to hear again, received a splendidly synchronised performance, complementary in the best sense to the Gesualdo on tape.

Monteverdi and the Israeli composer, Betty Olivero, formed the third and final pairing. Whilst there was none of the exhibitionism that characterises certain modern Italian groups in Monteverdi, there was much less inhibition in I Fagiolini’s performance than there had been in Gesualdo. Emma Tring proved a winning nymph in the lament: a pleasing voice, sensitive to the text and to the music with which it is intertwined. The magic of Monteverdi’s ground bass construction won through, from a continuo group comprising harpsichord (Catherine Pierron), theorbo (Quinteiro, again excellent), and organ (Hollingworth). This led on to the Messenger Scene from L’Orfeo. I Fagiolini’s presentation was somewhat puzzling, in that the Shepherds’ parts were shared out between various singers, confusing the two roles the audience would have seen listed in the programme. There seemed no obvious reason for this – and indeed it highlighted the relative weakness of one particular voice. However, Wilkinson really came into her own here as the Messenger, drawing on a considerably more varied vocal palette than she had employed for the Dowland. Nicholas Hurndall Smith’s Orfeo was not on the grand scale, but he proved as attentive to the text as Tring had in the previous piece. Whatever shortcomings there may have been in the performance, however, the sheer genius of Monteverdi shone through. Gesualdo may have the better biography, but Monteverdi has the infinitely more subtle, more ravishing, more truly dramatic music, even in 1607.

Fast-forward four hundred years to 2007, when Betty Olivero’s Neharot, Neharot was first performed. Distressed by scenes of the Israeli military onslaught upon the Lebanon the previous year, Olivero composed a tribute not only to Monteverdi, but to voices of female suffering. Seeking out such voices from Kurdistan, the Yemen, and elsewhere, she had them recorded by professional Israeli mourners, to provide the tape element for this work. ‘Neharot’, she explained, is the Hebrew for ‘rivers’, so Neharot, Neharot, ‘rivers, rivers,’ might be taken to refer to rivers of tears, rivers of blood. (Tears thus took us back to Dowland and Britten.) Solo viola (Powers again) and accordion (Ian Watson) joined the string orchestra for a clearly committed performance. Olivero considers the viola, not unreasonably, the ‘most intimate’ of the stringed instruments, whilst the accordion is a folk-like ‘voice of humanity’. Certainly the soloists’ performances lived up to these expectations, Powers rhapsodic yet purposeful, Watson soulful yet perhaps hopeful too. Here, of course, it was Monteverdi’s turn to be refracted not only across the centuries, but also geographically. The world of the Mediterranean and beyond is the scene for Olivero’s lament, with hints of the Voci of her teacher, Berio, doubtless drawing on Olivero’s Sephardic upbringing. As with the Dean piece, I should hesitate on the basis of a single hearing to hazard further predictions, but equally, I should be interested to hear the work again, and indeed to hear other works by Olivero. There is an interesting interview between the composer and Jessica Duchen in the Jewish Chronicle (click here).

Once again, then, kudos to the Britten Sinfonia for such imaginative and enlightening programming. Symphony orchestras and concert programmers, please take note…

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